College basketball has been increasingly dominated by young recruits who make a massive impact right off the bat, showing superstar potential.
Thanks to some depth issues created by the departure of Austin Rivers and Miles Plumlee, as well as the redshirt year being taken by Andre Dawkins, Duke’s 2012-13 campaign will hinge upon the contributions of four freshmen.
As it stands now, it looks as if four of the five starters are set.
Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly will most certainly find themselves in Duke’s starting frontcourt, while Seth Curry is assured of one of the guard spots. In all likelihood, Coach K. will opt to use Quinn Cook at the point, so that Curry can be positioned in his more natural shooting-guard spot.
Josh Hairston probably holds the inside track on the fifth starter spot due to his experience and the fact that he’s a small forward with a mid-range shot and good inside strength.
However, two true freshmen have a shot at cracking the starting five, due to their superstar potential.
Rasheed Sulaimon comes to Duke with a long resume of high-school accolades. The 6’4" guard won the McDonald’s three-point contest and played well in the game itself, knocking down several shots from beyond the arc.
This, of course, adds yet another outside shooter to a team already loaded with deep threats.
But for Sulaimon to beat out Hairston and force his way into a three-guard starting lineup, he’ll have to up his speed- and grit-quotient. Wearing the No. 14 previously donned by grinders Nate James and Dave McClure, Sulaimon can show the defensive hustle of his numerical predecessors and add a dribble-drive element to his offensive game, something a Duke team full of spot-up shooters desperately needs.
If he improves, he may have enough to justify a smaller, guard-heavy starting five.
The worst-case scenario for Sulaimon is that he comes off the bench to replace Cook, which would force Curry into ball-handling duties. Still, Sulaimon would shoulder much responsibility in this role, because he’d be Duke’s top backcourt bench player—given that his offensive prowess probably pushes him ahead of defensive specialist Tyler Thornton on the depth chart.
Amile Jefferson is the other true freshman with starting potential. It has been a long time since Duke had a player with Jefferson’s skill set. At 6’7" and 190 lbs, Jefferson uses his length to his advantage. Jefferson is at his best making quick moves along the baseline, or darting to the hoop from inside the paint.
With his desire to play in the post, and his athleticism and size aiding him on the defensive end, it’s possible that he could fit nicely into a starting lineup wherein he would take over some low-post duties from Ryan Kelly. Then Kelly could then slip outside and play the over-sized small-forward position at which he excels.
The challenge for Jefferson will be his lack of a consistent jumper and his slight frame. While it’s great that he wants to set up on the blocks, he may find it hard to establish his presence against a bigger and stronger opponent. Meanwhile, the development of a jump shot from the wings or free-throw line elbows would force defenders to play tight and open up his already excellent short-drive skills.
Even though both these faults in Jefferson’s game are easily fixable with more time in the weight room and gym, it seems unlikely that he will show the coaching staff enough to get a starting role early in the season.
Nevertheless, limited frontcourt depth and Mason Plumlee’s tendency to get in foul trouble will ensure that Jefferson is an integral part of the team’s rotation coming off the bench.
Two redshirt freshmen should also play a big part in Duke’s fortunes this season. Though it’s unlikely that either Alex Murphy or Marshall Plumlee have the goods to challenge for a starter’s spot yet, each should prove to be valuable assets in the regular rotation.
Alex Murphy, wearing No. 12, has drawn numerous comparisons to the previous occupant of that jersey, Kyle Singler. So far, Murphy hasn’t shown the ability to slash to the bucket that Singler possessed, but his mid- and long-range shot are reliable offensive weapons.
Murphy will ensure that when he subs in for Kelly or whoever is playing small forward, he’ll provide yet another dead-eye shooter with length to cause matchup problems.
Marshall Plumlee, the third of the brothers Plumlee, had the misfortune of suffering a stress fracture that will have him sidelined for 6-8 weeks. He probably has the potential of his brother Miles, rather than the more versatile Mason, but his absence will be missed, as he is the only backup at center for his big brother.
When he’s healthy, he’ll see playing time if for no other reason than Kelly and Murphy aren’t particularly inclined to play center, while Jefferson and Hairston lack the height to do it effectively.
Duke’s success this year will revolve around whether or not one or more of these freshmen players can show real superstar potential.
Sulaimon fits with Duke’s guard oriented approach, and therefore seems the most likely to break out as an important contributor to the 2012-13 campaign and a superstar in the future.
Likewise, Jefferson’s unique abilities could launch him into the national spotlight, provided he demonstrates an ability to hold his own in the low-post trenches and finds a reliable shot.
Redshirt freshmen Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee have the most work to do, but Murphy has enough of a shot to become a dangerous offensive player, and Marshall’s size should, at the very least, make him a serviceable center.